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Rage Against the Humanity} ?> Mira is the combination of the best parts of humanity and robot. That’s what the live action film Ghost in the Shell opens by saying, anyway. She combines the mind of a human with its ability to think for itself, respond to changing environments and reason out solutions with the strength and durability of a robotic frame.
But is the mind the best part of what it means to be human?
The human mind can do some extraordinary things. It has the ability to take in and sort stimuli from multiple sources in a near instant. It can decide on its own what to pay various levels of attention to, and even how to interpret that attention from the gentle touch that tickles to the sharp pain of a cut. It can also use that information to formulate plans that can be changed on the fly. The brain can set out to accomplish a task and as information comes in, alter, change, or completely rewrite the plan to accomplish a goal.
This is the ability that Cutter is after when he implants Mira’s brain into a robotic shell. He’s looking for a robot that adapts to meet a changing battlefield. He wants a weapon that has instinct, a machine that can serve him not based on logarithms and if/then statements, but with the natural ability of a human being. The problem with his plan, though, is that the human brain is not just an adaptive algorithm computer. It contains something else, something strange and beautiful that makes a human a person: a soul.
In the movie, this phenomenon is referred to as a “ghost.” Whether you call it spirit, soul, ruach adoni, or ghost, it is the thing that moves a human from a finely tuned bio-machine to what we would call a person. This strange part of us is the thing that houses our personality. It is the part that loves, hates, feels jealousy, anger, and joy. And when Dr. Ouelet removes Motoko Kusanagi’s brain and puts it in the shell that gets named Mira, she became much more than a weapon capable of thought. Mira is a wondrous, beautiful, frustrating person, a ghost in the shell with feelings, emotions, and memories.
Mira struggles with understanding who and what she is because her memories have been suppressed (for more thoughts on this and seeking truth see this article). Throughout the film, characters keep saying that you are not defined by your memories, but rather by what you do. Yet memories are the recollections of the things we’ve done, they are the markers of who we are through what we do.
A study in 2014 on memory found that humans have a unique capacity for memory of perhaps all the creatures on our planet. Many animals demonstrated very poor short-term memory and only retained things that were applicable to their survival (pack members, where food is, how to avoid punishments). When shown arbitrary images, most animals forgot them permanently within two minutes; even chimps, the closest mammal to humans, forgot the arbitrary image 20 seconds after being shown.
There is something in memory that is essential to human beings. It ties us to our past and helps us shape our future. It gives us the ability to relate to people in different ways and informs how we will trust. It can provide us with the grounds for predictive models, for good or ill. But it also brings us joy. Remembering a good time with a loved one brings comfort. Likewise, remembering the pain of betrayal can lead to trust issues. Memory and humanity are linked.
As much as I’d like to say you are not defined by your memories, you are a little. Memory of pain creates behaviours that can be healthy in preserving self and avoiding similar situations, or they can interfere with new relationships and experiences. For Mira, being forced to forget who she was and everything she did creates a vacuum of experience that leaves her an emptier person and questioning her humanity.
Despite those memories, however, we can act in new ways that change our future. We don’t have to be defined by our pasts. If we are the sum of our choices, then memory keeps a tally, but we can always add different choices to swing the total. When Mira first learns of Kuze, she swears she will kill him for assaulting someone’s mind, the one thing she has that is not manufactured. And yet when they meet, they have shared glitch memories that haunt them both and he remembers more of who he was, his humanity, and challenges her to seek to know more.
When she confronts Dr. Ouelet about these glitches, Cutter orders the doc to kill Mira, and yet Ouelet, genuinely caring for the strange and wonderful person Mira has become, refuses. As Cutter shoots Ouelet for disobeying, he remarks that ‘heart’ is another human flaw, yet it exists far more in the ‘ghost’ then in the chest.
As Mira remembers more of her past, a subtle but important shift takes place. She begins to move in a more natural way. She relates to her friend Batou as a person rather than as a machine and even works with her team in a more complimentary way. She embraces her humanity, even if she is not totally human.
Motoko ends the film saying that “humanity is a virtue.” That each one of us has some amazing and beautiful something about us, connected to our memories but not dependant on them. Not rooted in our physical bodies, but linked to our minds and hearts. Each person who walks this planet has this hidden virtue, this ghost, and perhaps the best thing we can do with it is to nurture by valuing other people and fighting against oppression, violence and hatred for the betterment of all humankind.